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Flawed Freedoms · Wednesday April 04, 2007 by Crosbie Fitch

Free Software has for various reasons been defined in terms of four freedoms (run, study, copy, modify). This is primarily because it was due to curtailment of those freedoms that Richard Stallman decided to set out the principles of software development in the form of a software license called the GPL that would restore those freedoms (for himself as for all).

There is a danger that the free culture movement, lacking any alternative, will simply substitute ‘free culture’ for ‘free software’ and adopt the same principles.

Unfortunately, the FSF definition of free software isn’t particularly sufficient for software, and it would be most unwise to adopt it for culture as a whole. Note that I’m not suggesting the GPL is unethical – it is a most laudable nullification of the unethical privileges granted by copyright and patent law to suspend the liberty of the public. I’m arguing that the ‘four freedoms’ are a flawed foundation for a definition of cultural freedom. And yes, I’d also argue that Roosevelt’s four freedoms, whilst a commendable aspiration, do not constitute a sound basis for defining human rights.

The problem is that Stallman’s four freedoms are a reaction against copyright’s suspension of those freedoms. Whilst they may serve well to mobilise a reactionary movement, they do not suffice as a definition of cultural freedom, whether in the field of computer science or any other art.

For something so critical as the definition of cultural freedom or ‘free culture’ we must go back to first principles, and ignore copyright.

First Principles

Untrammelled freedom constitutes chaos, disorder, and rule by might rather than merit. Hence harmony is created through collective and consensual constraint of this freedom.

In order to define the freedom mankind should enjoy in terms of human culture, you define the minimum necessary constraints on mankind’s freedom in the cultural domain.

Human beings need their lives protected, and their privacy respected (property, territory, space, etc). The truth of their actions and communications with each other must also be demonstrated and upheld. Beyond the protection of life, privacy and truth, no individual’s liberty should be suspended, although it may need fair balance against that of others’.

These are the ethical constraints that delimit mankind’s otherwise absolute freedom. These constraints upon all of our freedom for the protection of each of us are termed rights – often qualified as human rights to distinguish them from mere privileges.

  • The right to life
  • The right to privacy
  • The right to truth
  • The right to liberty

These rights are inalienable – not for sale, not to be waived, nor to be compromised for commercial expediency.

Mankind’s cultural activities or communications are subject to the same constraints, and so artists enjoy the same rights – and we are all artists.

However, commercial organisations are not human and are not expected to have precisely the same set of rights. Unfortunately, laws have been made in the past applying to all commercial entities, whether individual or incorporated, with the expectation that they could not abrogate the liberty of the public – on the assumption that only a few nefarious and highly commercialised individuals could meet the law’s criteria, e.g. for large scale manufacturers of contraband.

Essentially, some of these laws were intended to create monopolies among commercial entities – not to suspend the liberty of individual members of the public.

On hindsight, the corporate privilege to a commercial monopoly on art and ideas is the unethical constraint that was imposed upon human cultural freedom a few hundred years ago, in the forms of copyright and patent. This wasn’t widely appreciated at the time because it only affected those few businesses able to afford printers or factories.

So, an antique commercial monopoly has become corrupted today into a suspension of the public’s liberty.

Free software and free culture have arisen in reaction to this, as the effects of copyright’s suspension of our liberty are ever more widely felt – as we all start exploring the readily available software development, printing, recording and publishing facilities that we all have in our homes, and discovering that we are bound by centuries old, rusty manacles.

It is understandable to express this reaction as a demand for the restoration of the liberties thus suspended.

It is forgivable to express this reaction as a demand for the affected freedoms to become rights, but that is an over-reaction that cannot be justifiably maintained.

It is dangerous and invalid to focus on these affected freedoms to the exclusion of all other considerations, despite their clear unethical suspension for the commercially privileged.

This is because people then mistakenly start thinking that the freedoms they seek must become rights, must be absolute freedoms – free of all constraints – free of the constraints that protect our human rights to life, privacy and truth.

Absolute freedom has no constraint. Absolute freedom is unethical.

Without constraint, any freedom is unethical.

Ethical Freedom is Defined by its Constraints

The problem is not that our freedom is constrained, but that our freedom is more constrained than it should be – simply for the sake of commercial interests.

Free culture may be achieved by the removal of unnecessary and unethical constraints, but it is defined by the imposition of necessary and ethical constraints, not in terms of a dogmatic list of absolute freedoms or privileges.

For example, to demand a freedom/privilege to inspect the source materials of a published work to such an extent that you can send stormtroopers to break down the author’s door to obtain them, is evidently a definition of free culture that’s lost sight of ethics in pursuit of disturbingly deficient dogma.

So, when you see copyright’s unethical constraint upon certain activities, you should not mistakenly elevate those activities to be intrinsically sacred, to be protected from any constraint at all costs, such that you demand an absolute freedom to engage in those activities and/or even that the state must ensure that no obstacles prevent such activities from being engaged in.

So, how are we to define free culture?

That is the mission for another article, but the definition I will propose will essentially revolve around the four rights I have already mentioned: life, privacy, truth, and liberty. It will not involve enumerating a set of freedoms or privileges.

Each of us has freedom. Our freedom is like our own country, defined by its borders. We may enjoy our country’s fine scenery, bustling cities, and cultural produce, but our country is not defined by these things that we enjoy within it, but by where it begins and ends, from the natural boundary of a coastline, to the borders we agree with our neighbours.

As long as we respect each other’s rights, we have all the freedom we need.

Gevin Giorbran said 4924 days ago :

Excellent article. Thanks for putting it on the web. I found it searching for “Absolute freedom equals absolute chaos”. It relates well to a theory of mine called two kinds of order.

Best Wishes,




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